SGA members question senator’s criticism of senate leadership

By Zac Bears

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

Alexander Marks-Katz, a Student Government Association senator in his second semester representing Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community, has serious concerns about the leadership of the SGA Senate and the execution of the spring election. But when senators and other SGA members heard his characterization of events, they came to the defense of the senate’s leadership.

Marks-Katz said in an interview with the Daily Collegian Sunday that his concern with his time as senator centers on the fact that a few people control the agenda – Senate Speaker Sïonan Barrett, Associate Speaker Lauren Coakley and the chairs of the senate’s five committees – and that in his experience, the leaders are not receptive to suggestions from outside that group.

“I’m genuinely concerned with the senate’s leadership and its lack of direction,” Marks-Katz said.

Yet when contacted for comment by the Collegian, no other senators agreed with Marks-Katz’s criticisms about how Barrett, Coakley and committee chairs are leading the senate.

Citing a recent Collegian profile on Barrett, who is also running for SGA president on a ticket with SGA Secretary of Public Relations Chantal Lima Barbosa, he said, “…their philosophy for this election was ‘they didn’t have any specific goals, so that way people could do what they wanted.’ But the problem with that from my experience is that’s kind of like having a car without a wheel, so you can’t steer it.”

Marks-Katz argued that the effect of his “car without a wheel” analogy is that individual senators will develop ideas that aren’t widely known by the entire body, which means that when those motions are proposed in senate meetings, individuals haven’t considered all of the implications. The senate then tables the motion for further discussion.

But Marks-Katz said a majority of tabled motions don’t get reintroduced. He said this means that 90 to 95 percent of motions in the senate come from the committees and the small leadership group.

He also said he finds the senate to be “more of a reactive body rather than a proactive one.”

However, no other senator agreed with Marks-Katz’s description of the senate’s working environment.

“Branching out that the senate is a reactionary body seems a bit ignorant to say,” Administrative Affairs Chairman and Student Trustee candidate Kabir Thatte said  “Yes, some of the responses by the senate have been reactionary, but this has been necessary.”

“The senate is reactionary when the situation arises, for example (the Davis Report) and the recommendation to end the Confidential Informant program,” Chairwoman of the Undergraduate Experience Committee Jen Raichel said in an email. “But that should not overshadow the proactive work being done by senators (and senate leadership).”

Thatte said that committee motions aren’t just the work of committee chairs.

“I’ve brought many motions before my committee, but we would sit down and work it out between all of us,” he said. “After this, the motion goes to the senate to be passed, worked on, or both.”

Also in his first year as a senator, SGA Senator Jose Nova said he’s been “impressed” by the senate leadership’s “dedication and work ethic,” specifically citing Raichel, Barrett and Thatte.

“In terms of motions and agendas, as a collective unit, we vote and agree on those that should be passed. Without a majority vote, this cannot be done,” Nova said regarding Marks-Katz’s contention of tabled motions. “When motions are tabled, this usually takes place because a motion does not have enough substance to be feasible.”

Nova said he understands how a senator could feel neglected when ideas aren’t considered, but said that has nothing to do with the senate’s leadership.

Chair of the Diversity and Student Engagement Committee Emily O’Neil, who is also running for student trustee, hasn’t had the same experience as Marks-Katz but believes the body does have structural issues.

She said that the “most pressing problems” for the SGA are systemic because its members have “little accountability” to “actual students.” She specifically cites haphazard preparation of each senator’s “Back to the People” events, of which two are supposed to be held each semester.

“There is no way to know how your own senator voted on a specific issue,” she said. “There is often no way to tell who your senators even are or how to reach them.”

Contradictory accounts

Marks-Katz is disappointed with the state of the SGA elections, and said that he proposed two solutions to Lima Barbosa. But what Lima Barbosa said contests some of Marks-Katz’s statements and she said that his solutions were infeasible and potentially illegal.

He outlined two suggestions he provided to Lima Barbosa. The first was a poster of Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots. He suggested the poster would be a meme that invited students to vote by saying, “Gronk wants you to #VoteUMass.”

“She said she would make it, and since, I haven’t heard from her about that,” he said. “I think if there had been actual execution on that, or if she had delegated it to me, then … it would have at least made people aware of elections.”

Lima Barbosa remembered this interaction differently.

“I did meet with this individual, and asked him to send me the poster,” she said in an email. “However, the individual never sent me this poster.”

Marks-Katz’s other suggestion was that the SGA use $200 of the $3,000 election budget to provide a free $10 pizza to 20 randomly selected voters. He said he sent it in a March 2 email.

Lima Barbosa said she told Marks-Katz that she needed to discuss the idea with SGA Adviser Lydia Washington. According to Lima Barbosa, Washington said that “giving people pizza to vote would not be allowed, and (would be) potentially illegal.”

Marks-Katz also detailed his account of attempts to schedule meetings with Barrett and Coakley over the past two months.

In Marks-Katz’s experience, the speaker and other senate leaders were not receptive to his suggestions. He said he went back and forth with Barrett, Coakley and Washington trying to schedule a meeting, but found it hard to set up a time.

“I feel like when I tried to step up, when I tried to take more of a leadership role in senate, when I tried to offer my ideas and support, those ideas were deferred and ignored by Speaker Barrett and Associate Speaker Coakley,” Marks-Katz said.

Coakley sharply disagreed with Marks-Katz’s characterization of attempts to schedule a meeting.

“We felt that communications from this individual were overly aggressive and we felt personally threatened,” Coakley said in an email. “Therefore, Speaker Barrett and I went to our adviser who, given the circumstances, told us not to meet with him without professional staff present. This request to include professional staff has not been respected by said senator and the individual has subsequently cancelled the three meetings.”

Coakley said Marks-Katz did not attempt to reschedule after the third cancellation and that after over a month of “consistent and concerning emails,” they communicated their concerns to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life in accordance with state law.

In a follow-up response, Coakley said she, Washington and SGA President Vinayak Rao were ready to meet with him a couple weeks ago, but he cancelled at the last minute. She said that Washington found the tone of Marks-Katz’s messages to herself, Barrett and Washington “very disrespectful.”

“I did not feel comfortable being spoken to in such a disrespectful manner over email and my adviser directed these concerns to her superiors,” she said.

SGA officers decry timing of remarks

Many of the SGA officials who commented for this article said they disagreed with Marks-Katz approaching the Collegian in the middle of an election campaign.

When she declined to comment on the article, Barrett said that some of Marks-Katz’s quotes “seem like a public bashing of me in my role.” She also characterized the timing as “strategically released (during) elections.”

SGA Senator Michael Hout took issue with Marks-Katz’s “accusations,” and also took issue with the timing.

“The chosen time to release such inflammatory and untrue comments clearly speaks to a partisan goal, which is just unfortunate,” he said.

However, Marks-Katz predicted that SGA officials would criticize the timing as an attempt to throw this week’s election.

“Full disclosure, Sammi Gay is my (resident assistant). Also, I have a class with Danny Mirlay Srinivas so I know him from that. But I’m not sure who I’ll vote for at this point,” he said in relation to those concerns.

Gay and Mirlay Srinivas are both candidates for SGA vice president.

Amy Gebo, SGA senator, may have an explanation for the criticisms. She characterized last semester as “very rough.” She said many members of the SGA weren’t separating professional work from their personal lives, and said that explains the numerous resignations, including former Associate Speaker Chris Czepiel, who rejoined the senate this week.

Gebo said in an email the SGA climate improved significantly after members of the leadership underwent mediation sessions.

“People definitely learned how to work with each other,” Gebo said. “I feel as though separating those two is very hard for those in the SGA because it is a professional organization made up of college students. This semester has definitely proved to be better.”

Zac Bears can be reached at [email protected] Patrick Hoff contributed to this report.